In times of need, manufacturing is driven by a philosophy John Lennon said best, “There are no problems, only solutions.” Today, manufacturers have pivoted to produce the critical supplies and equipment necessary to battle COVID-19 at a rate never seen before. SME’s Humans of Manufacturing Heroes Edition tells the stories of the teams, companies and partnerships adapting to produce the tools needed to fight this global pandemic. Going behind the scenes to share how these once-in-a-lifetime transformations are happening and the people making it all possible.
When the COVID-19 pandemic ended spring athletic seasons around the world, orders dried up for what is normally the busiest season for Akervall Technologies Inc. (ATI), a Michigan-based mouthguard manufacturer which makes dental protection for medical, athletic and military markets. The largest part of ATI’s business is their SISU sports guard, and as the virus progressed from Asia to Europe and slowly made its way into the US, one sport after another was canceled until the company was facing a cruel reality—there were hardly any sales.
As a business owner responsible for more than 20 people getting a paycheck, the COVID-19 pandemic brought more than concerns about the health and safety of friends and family for ATI CEO Sassa Akervall.
“Our employees depend on the paychecks we provide, which elevated this tragedy to a whole new level,” said Akervall. “What was I supposed to do? Well, the first thing I did…was to cry. I couldn’t help it. I felt so helpless and desperate.”
Faced with layoffs and the real possibility of having to close their small business, Akervall and her husband Dr. Jan Akervall, MD, PhD, ATI president, co-founder and chief medical officer, were faced with two critical questions—how do we protect our employees and help our community?
A 5 a.m. text (right) from COO Kathy Capelli kickstarted the process that would answer those tough questions—by making lemonade out of COVID-19’s lemons.
“Initially, I thought she was drunk,” Akervall shared. “Obviously, she was far from drunk. Instead, she had been up since 2:30 a.m. trying to figure out a way out of the business’s and my misery.”
So, in March, with PPE in short supply around the globe, the Akervall’s and their production team brainstormed a way to help by producing something else—something that there was an urgent need for. The solution turned out to be face shields.
Not only would ATI be helping protect healthcare workers, but the company would be able to extend employment opportunities to the local community at a time when many businesses were having to close down operations to limit the virus’s spread—an important goal for a small business born in a small town.
“It was the textbook definition of a no-brainer,” said Akervall.
The company immediately got to work developing a prototype, researching where to buy supplies and how to set up the manufacturing.
“My production manager, Paul Wisniewski, tirelessly and patiently sourced what we needed to get started,” Akervall said. “Unfortunately for him, this is what I love to do, so when I say that he has been patient, I mean he has been patient with me.”
ATI’s team wasted no time and was ready to start producing and distribute their first batch of 50,000 face shields by the first week of April. To date, ATI has produced over one million medical shields at the company’s headquarters in Saline, Mich., and donated thousands to healthcare workers.
“I cannot express how proud I am with my team. The fact that they are able to keep good spirits up, even though we are facing some real hardships,” Akervall said. “And by God, we are going to beat this dreadful threat we are all up against. We are going to come out of this much stronger and more resilient than we were. We will take this traumatic period in our history and use it to dynamically grow and develop for the better. It’s up to all of us to turn this tragedy into a triumph and make some damn lemonade.”